First on CNN: Fired Phoenix VA director could return to job

Story highlights

  • Sharon Helman is arguing that a key portion of the reforms passed in the wake of the scandal is unconstitutional
  • House Republicans were outraged Wednesday

Washington (CNN)The former head of the Veterans Affairs office in Phoenix, who was fired in the wake of the VA wait-time scandal, could find an easier path back to her old job because of a decision by Attorney General Loretta Lynch.

Sharon Helman, who is suing the federal government to win her old job back, is arguing that a key portion of the reforms passed in the wake of the scandal is unconstitutional and denies her an important step to appeal her firing. Lynch alerted House Republican leaders Tuesday that the Justice Department will continue fighting against Helman's reinstatement but is ceding that important argument to her.
    "I note that the scope of this decision is narrow. Although the Department of Justice has decided not to defend (VA reform law) against the Appointments Clause challenge in this case, the department will continue to defend the vast bulk of the statute," Lynch wrote in a letter House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy Tuesday. The letter was obtained by CNN on Wednesday.
    This is a clip of CNN's reporting back in 2014.
    This is a clip of CNN's reporting back in 2014.

      JUST WATCHED

      This is a clip of CNN's reporting back in 2014.

    MUST WATCH

    This is a clip of CNN's reporting back in 2014. 07:07
    Helman's attorney and the Justice Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment Wednesday.
    CNN broke the news in 2014 that dozens of veterans had died while awaiting treatment in Phoenix and that VA officials had crafted an elaborate scheme to hide long wait times.
    Helman was one of the first people fired after President Barack Obama signed the reforms into law, but she sued the federal government last October, seeking her old job back. Helman ran the Phoenix VA from 2012 to 2014, during which federal inspectors found that 3,500 veterans had been waiting on secret wait lists in Phoenix.
    Confronted at the time by CNN's Drew Griffin, Helman said, "It's never come from me."
    Helman plead guilty earlier this year to not reporting $50,000 in gifts she received from a lobbyist seeking business with the VA, including a car and a $5,000 check.
    House Republicans were outraged Wednesday, saying the Obama administration had effectively cleared a path for one of the most important people at the center of the VA scandal to regain her job -- essentially undoing months of work to clean up the VA.
    "When Congress passed the Veterans Choice Act, a key provision allowed for incompetent and indifferent executives whose inaction allowed veterans to die to be more easily fired. Now, even after the President signed this provision into law, his administration is refusing to defend this measure of accountability," McCarthy told CNN Wednesday.
    A senior House Republican aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said they were "weighing potential responses" to address the problem -- including possible legislative fixes.
    House Veterans Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller called the choice not to fight Helman on the issue "remarkably hypocritical given the fact that President Obama enthusiastically supported this law."
    And Arizona Sen. John McCain said the Obama administration's decision was "shameful."
    "When President Obama signed into law this bill which provides greater authority to fire senior VA leaders who deny and delay care of our veterans, he stated: 'If you engage in an unethical practice, if you cover up a serious problem, you should be fired. Period,' " McCain said in a statement. "The administration's decision not only undermines the law that Congress passed and the president supported, but sends a clear message that for President Obama and Attorney General (Loretta) Lynch, the sanctity of a federal bureaucrat's job is far more important than the health and well-being of our veterans."